Exploring Water: An Inquiry Approach

This summer was a hot one. It was the first that we've spent without air conditioning. In general, we try to seek out water wherever we can, but on the hottest days it was absolutely crucial that we do so. July seemed like a perfect time to star an inquiry about water.

Here Silas is creating a "fountain." Shortly before starting this exploration he saw an episode of Mr. Rogers (1999, episode 1741) that focused on water and fountains and he was blown away by it. It inspired many plans and drawings of how to recreate the fountains that he saw.

I pulled out my copy of Exploring Water with Young Children (another title from the same series as Building Structures with Young Children, which we followed last winter) and started gathering materials. I really can't speak highly enough about this book. It's intended for early childhood educators to use in the classroom, but it is so easy to adapt to the home setting. Everything is clearly laid out; all I had to do was glance at it in the evening and I felt prepared to make meaningful observations of Silas' play the next day.

The biggest purchase was the water table. Prices on Amazon are so variable, I stalked it until the price dropped and then snatched it up. I looked for months on Craigslist, but only ever saw the plastic ones that are really for younger children. For our initial open exploration, I set out clear plastic containers, gathered from our recycling bin and the thrift store; clear flexible tubing in a variety of diameters and cut to various lengths, which were just a few cents a foot at the hardware store; and a set of funnels

It was so interesting to just sit and observe his play, taking notes, recording his comments, and photo documenting! It was such a window into his ability to problem solve and I got so many clues about his understanding of the properties of water.

He created this double funnel apparatus (picture above) over and over again. The first time he created it he said, 

I’ll put this [a second funnel] in the opposite side and this [the tube] in a circle and see what happens. Look! It [the water] goes in a circle!

Several play session later and he was still making the same apparatus. We had this exchange about it:

You’ve done this experiment before. Is anything different this time?

The tube is longer.

Does that change anything?

It takes longer for the water to go around.

It can be so hard to refrain from "instructing" in these moments. I try hard to choose my words carefully and to ask questions that help me better understand his thinking rather than questions that "test" his knowledge by seeking a "right" answer.

Kids are learning all the time. So often we expect them to demonstrate their learning in ways that don't really suit them. But if we adults just take a step back, observe, and ask some open-ended questions, we would be amazed by what they understand.

For example, If I asked Silas to explain displacement to me or asked him to demonstrate his understanding of that concept in some abstract way that would appear on a test, he would most likely be hard pressed to answer correctly. But, he totally gets it. I know, because we had this conversation during the moment photographed above:

“It’s spilling out.”

“Did you add more water?”


“So, why do you suppose it’s spilling out?”

“My arm takes up space and pushes the water out.”

The book guides one from this initial exploration to two focused inquires into how water flows and the nature of drops of water. In all honesty, this summer we just focused on the open exploration. The water table is stored away now for the winter, but both of us are excited to bring it back out again next year and pick up where we left off.

To close out the investigation, I invited some of our homeschooling friends to join us on a trip to the wastewater treatment plant. Silas has for years been fascinated with where the water ends up when it goes down the drain and a recent interest in watching the "ball float" (we have to watch the tank fill up almost every time we flush) paired well with our water inquiry.

In situations such as these - in a large group, in an unfamiliar place - it's hard for me to discern how much Silas is taking away from the experience. He stayed pretty quiet and seemed a little bit anxious. But, when describing the experience to daddy that evening he do so with great detail and enthusiasm and in the days and weeks that followed, he brought up things that the tour guide said. It was clear that his mind was working through all that he had seen and heard.

There are so many children's books about water and the water cycle. These were some of our favorites: Kumak's River, Water Can Be, A Cool Drink of Water, All the Water in the World, and Water in the Park

To extend learning from our trip to the waste water treatment plant, we read: Toilet: How it Works and looked at select pages from Material World: A Global Family Portrait. (A note about the second title: its purpose is to give a real and raw picture of living conditions around the world and that it does very well. As such, there are images that may be upsetting to young children and I encourage you to preview the book before leaving it out for children to have free access to. I chose to have us look only at the two-page spread of "toilets around the world.")

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